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On Having a Stepmother Who Loves Opera

My Father Married Your Mother, ed. Anne Burt (W.W. Norton, 2006)

My Father Married Your Mother, ed. Anne Burt (W.W. Norton, 2006)

When my mother was dying, she said that it would be terrible to grow old alone. “Don’t think you’re paying me some kind of tribute if you fail to remarry,” she said to my father. “The thing I hope for most is that you will build a new life for yourself.” She told my brother and me to welcome whoever came along. “She won’t be me,” she said, “but you should make every effort with her, for my sake and for Dad’s.” It was a wonderful thing to say, a guilt-reducing formula that would smooth the awkwardness of transition. Judging by how awkward the transition was anyway, I hate to think what would have happened had my mother’s take been less generous. My anxieties about the topic were matched only by my brother’s and my father’s. We had rational agreement that he should remarry if he could find someone worthy, and emotional anguish at the very thought.

My father took up dating as an onerous duty. He kept reiterating that he needed to find someone, that Mom had said to do so, but the process was lugubrious. He would come in from his dates tired and distracted and say, “I hate this; I don’t want to be with these women; I only want to be with Carolyn.” About six months after my mother died, he started seeing Bobye, whose husband had died at about the same time as my mother. They got along in part because they kept each other company in their mourning, talking about their lost spouses constantly. One of my other’s friends said to me that she was having them to dinner — “just the four of them,” she said. “Your father, Bobye, his dead wife, and her dead husband.” I was eager to meet this boon companion of my father’s, and so we arranged an evening when I sat next to her. I can say now, almost fifteen years later, that Bobye is one of the nicest people in New York, but when I sat next to her that night I took offense at everything she said, and when I got home I wrote my father a letter saying that Bobye was a terrible person. My father called back and we both cried. “The person you’re describing isn’t Bobye,” he said. “Give her another chance.” Chastised, I had dinner with them again, and glimpsed some essential goodness in her. By the next month, she and I went out to lunch, just us, and I talked from deep in my heart, and tried to get her to respond the way my mother might have responded. It wasn’t easy for anyone. She was both a person in her own right and a stage in my grief, and it was not always possible to reconcile these functions.

By the time my father and Bobye broke up, I no longer hated her and I no longer thought that she was my mother. I thought she was herself and terrific and I was devastated at losing her. It was too soon for both of them, and the shadow of the dead had forestalled their intimacy, but for me it was a grievous loss.

Then there were a few awful people. I was suspicious of my own suspicion, remembering how harshly I had judged Bobye, but some of these ladies were really unacceptable. There was one my brother vetoed, and a few I eliminated. Then there was one we liked a lot, but who couldn’t handle full-on domesticity. Then there was one who was a friend of mine, and that ended very badly all around.

And then there was Sarah Billinghurst. She and my father went along happily for a bit, and then they broke up and my father started seeing someone kindhearted but slightly depressing, who I think reminded him of his mother. Then one of the women from pre-Sarah B., whom I will call Lola, came back on the scene. I remembered Bonjour Tristesse, the best-selling novel about a girl who is determined to undermine her father’s relationship and does so with tragic consequences. My brother and I thought it might be worth the tragic consequences. We recruited my father’s friends, who all admitted that they thought Lola was bad news but didn’t know quite what to do about it. We told them to speak up now. We mounted a campaign. My father said, “I couldn’t marry anyone you boys didn’t like,” and we said, “Good. Dump Lola,” and he said we were being unfair. Lola wasn’t really evil, but she was cold, tedious, and humorless to the bone.

When my father mentioned that he had seen Sarah again, we were exultant. Frankly, we would have been exultant if he had started going out with the Wednesday Witch at that point. But Sarah, whom we called Sarah B. to distinguish her from my brother’s wife, also named Sarah, we had been fond of all along, and the contrast with Lola showed her many strengths to best advantage. Everyone likes Sarah B. upon meeting her: she’s got a cozy, warm quality that makes you feel like you’re in a gingerbread house with her, and a dramatic flair and some glamour, and that’s an instantly winning combination of qualities. She comes from New Zealand and I lived for a long time in England, and so we had immediately a sort of common vocabulary of the British Empire. She has an ironic, upbeat sense of humor, and there is no better way through a period of mutual cautiousness than to laugh at the funny part of everything. She has both verve and kindness. We felt there was something there with Sarah B., that she was made of the earth and that you could count on her. She was not without issues and ambitions of her own, and she didn’t pretend that she was easy; I preferred that honesty to Lola’s obsequious simplicity. Sarah B. had riveting stories to tell, and she adored her friends and they adored her and she had extremely nice children. She dealt with my father’s existing life by taking it all on. While some women had wanted to wean him from his habits, Sarah B. wanted to practice them with him. She became close to the people to whom he was close; she took an animated interest in his professional life; she came to grips with his schedule. Sarah B. was committed to an exciting career, and that was novel to my father. In fact, one of the best things about Sarah B. was that she was very different from my mother in her style and way of life. My mother was a hard act to follow, and the women who were like her had always seemed like pale imitations. Sarah Billinghurst, at once regal and fun, was very much her own person, and her splendor impressed us all at once. My father, genial as the day is long but also possessed of an alarming lucidity on virtually any topic, tends to frighten people. Sarah B. was not one bit afraid, and though she was lavish in her attentions, she was also lavish in her expectations. She had character. And she was, and is, an extraordinarily sympathetic and generous woman.

The tragedy of my parents’ marriage was that my mother’s great love was art, and my father is color blind; and my father’s great love is music and my mother was tone-deaf. Sarah B. is the assistant general manager of the Metropolitan Opera, and she and my father have an entire relationship organized around music. It is terrific that my father has been able to reclaim this pleasure that he had to some considerable extent abandoned during his first marriage. He and Sarah B. thrive on their music, and over time he has come also to enjoy the large world that lies around it — festivals, friendships with singers and conductors, going to auditions. My father has had a chance to know so many people he had long admired, and his understanding of them and their work constantly deepens. I was as much delighted that he was open to such growth as I was that Sarah B. could provide the engine for it. It had sometimes seemed that he wanted only to be indulged in his old age. Sarah B. flatters him like mad, but she also demands things, stretches him, awakens what is dormant in him. Full of social energy, she always has a hundred interesting people around the house. She keeps him young by keeping him interested, not only in her but also in all that she brings to him.

A life in the opera has rubbed off on Sarah B. — she has a great, big, theatrical personality and a gift for high drama. I tend toward high drama myself, so we share a tendency to escalate, which is rather nice when faced with my father’s implacable rationality. She and I have found sympathetic ears when my father is being intransigent, and we often e-mail each other in sleepless hours about particular frustrations with which the other one is likely to sympathize. I used to like taking private credit for the continuation of the relationship because I would calm Sarah B. down when she was upset and tell my father when he was being unreasonable. My brother and I were committed to making this one work; we thought Sarah B. was wonderful for my father and wonderful for us. The very caretaking that we sometimes found onerous seemed to give her a sense of fulfillment, but she did not so overindulge his foibles that they became exaggerated, nor did she ever cast us in a bad light. I like to position myself at the center of everyone else’s life, and Sarah B. had a touching vulnerability with me that made me feel enormously important, and I knew that in my interactions with her I was ensuring that all would be good for my beloved father. While I had encouraged my father to find someone, I had also cherished resentment at anyone’s coming to fill the particular void in our family, and had devoted considerable energy to noting the faults of the contestants. Then Sarah B. came along, and I found that despite my best efforts, there was no way to dislike or feel superior to her, because she was immediately so overwhelmingly magnanimous and caring. I saw how she softened the anger and frustration that had afflicted my father after his loss; I saw her open up emotions in him that I never expected to see again.

A few months later, we went on a trip to L.A., my brother and his wife, my partner and me, my two nephews, and my father; and Sarah B. wasn’t able to join us. My father was in a sort of towering grumpiness that was absolutely horrifying and that we hadn’t seen in some years, and there was no one else to cater to it, and we all realized that Sarah B. was a sort of shock absorber, taking all the bumps in the road and giving the rest of us a smooth ride. We realized that we needed her more than we had previously allowed. In the end, she came out to L.A., and when she arrived it was oil upon the churning waters and we all had a terrific time. I love Sarah’s ability to take over any situation and bring it to order; she is not a producer for nothing. And I love the fact that she makes no bones about it. She calls up to announce she is organizing Christmas and by the end of an efficient fifteen-minute conversation, twenty-eight decisions that could have kept the rest of us going for a month are settled. She organizes trips in every perfect detail, and she always invites me and my partner along and works things out to suit our taste and needs. Her daughter nicknamed her the General, but it is all done with great good humor, and usually feels more coddling than aggressive. A few hours before a party she organized in the country was to begin, she said to me, “I’m getting very worried about the weather.” “Sarah,” I replied, “there’s no point worrying. It’s the weather. You can’t do anything about it.” “I know,” she said. “It’s so irritating!”

You would think that after all that, I would have welcomed their getting married as a glorious apotheosis; indeed I would have thought that myself. But we would have been quite wrong. My father had said over and over again, to me and to my brother and indeed to Sarah B. herself, that he would never, ever remarry. I thought this was foolish — it seemed to me that marriage would mean a very great deal to Sarah B. and that it would not cost my father anything. But the status quo served him well and she seemed to accept things as they were. It all changed in 2003, and I heard about the sudden realignment of the stars not from my father but from Sarah B., who asked in an e-mail which of several dates would best suit me for a wedding. Very much to my own surprise, I was apoplectic; it seemed like a complete disruption of a delicate ecosystem and jarred on my inner life and my sense of what rooted me to the earth. My friends and my therapist have all racked up hours pondering the why and wherefore. Much of it was to do with my mother. She had encouraged this result, but I had nonetheless had an underlying feeling that marriage was her province, which no one else would be allowed to enter. The idea that my father could do this again seemed to trivialize the institution he had shared with my mother. Then too, I disliked the fact that my father had reversed himself. My father does not usually reverse himself with me, and the fact that he would do so with someone else made me jealous. I objected to the fact that he hadn’t consulted with my brother and me before he made this momentous decision, and that he hadn’t called to tell us either what he was going to do, beforehand, or what he had done, afterward. And I objected most to the feeling that I had been deceived, that his protestations of eternal fidelity had been tricks of an unreliable narrator. He told me that he hadn’t mentioned it because it was not really significant, because it wouldn’t really change anything, and I became irate. It wasn’t a bad change per se, but it was a change, and I didn’t want to countenance this disingenuousness, which I presumed was the expression of his feelings of unconscious guilt, which I tied to the memory of my mother. The web was getting rather tangled.

The relationship between my father and Sarah B., which had been my pet project, was now taken quite out of my reach and became very much their own. The wedding went ahead on a date that was convenient for all, and I tried to be celebratory. It was a very difficult time and helped propel me into a depression. I felt a fathomless sea of anxieties opening out. If Sarah B. and I differ, then when will he do what I want and when will he do what she wants? With my mother it was never an issue — he did what she wanted, because they were seamless in that way, but what she wanted was generally what was best for me. With Sarah B., we avoid the topic assiduously because we both feel that we stand to lose in any confrontation; I try to support her positions and she to support mine and we move away from conflicts. But it is my underlying fear that my father will be weak and subject to her influence and that I will somehow alienate her and in so doing lose him. This anxiety is not incommensurate with my great affection for her, nor with my experience of her great affection for me; it is not a rational likelihood but a deep paranoia. I didn’t grow up reading Cinderella for nothing. I can’t really imagine what the topic of such difference would be, but she and I are both extremely demanding people and it’s hard to believe that my father won’t sometime be too tired for all of her demands and all of mine. I claim historical precedence, and she claims current primacy. I sometimes think our greatest difficulty is our similarity.

And then just when I am getting myself into a frenzy of anxiety, Sarah B. will do something else so benevolent that I feel ashamed of having been afraid of her, and I feel foolish. I have a great aunt who recently turned a hundred and five. I love her very much, but I have loved her since I was a little boy. I know that for someone coming along now, there’s not so much there to love, because she has faded around the edges and is no longer able to communicate anything of substance. But Sarah B. has been unstinting with Aunt Bea. I should emphasize that Aunt Bea is not my father’s aunt, but my mother’s, and that my father is fond of her but not enormously interested in her welfare. So Sarah B. has no motive for taking care of Aunt Bea except altruism. She goes to visit all the time, and whenever she goes, she takes flowers with her. The carpeting at Aunt Bea’s house was in horrible condition, but Aunt Bea’s vision is not great and I was content to leave things as they were. Sarah B. swept in and ordered new carpet and a man to install it, and arranged for Aunt Bea to spend the day up at my father’s apartment, and Aunt Bea’s house is in consequence a great deal cleaner and fresher than ever before. Most significantly, Aunt Bea had had a bleeding sore on her finger, which I had tended to think would heal up on its own, but which Sarah B. felt should be seen. It turned out to be a melanoma, and prompt treatment for it saved Aunt Bea from a great deal of fruitless pain. I have seen Sarah B. engaged with my nephews and niece in the most loving way. She makes ice cream with Calvin and she plays games with Emmett and she encourages my father to go see them as often as possible. She has embraced the family wholeheartedly.

My father wanted to give me a fantastic surprise party for my fortieth birthday, and Sarah took on the job. Remember that she produces operas for a living — she was well and truly overqualified to stage my birthday party, but she has never gone at a new Tristan and Isolde with more gusto than she brought to this production. The theme was great performances, and she got leading singers to come and sing, ballet dancers to come and dance, a brilliant songster to write a song about me and Audra McDonald to sing it. She organized transport for friends from overseas, kept track of the RSVPs, figured out the seating. It was a splendid party and none of the other collaborators — my father, my brother, and my partner — could have begun to stage anything like it without her. When I thanked her for it, she said, “Of course, dear. Your father wanted to give you a wonderful party, and I wanted to make him happy.” I realized that there is a transitive property to love, and that quite apart from the fact that we very much enjoy each other, we have to love each other because we both love my father.

I still hate it when people refer to my father and Sarah B. as my parents. I am perfectly happy with “your father and stepmother” or “your father and Sarah” or any of a vast array of other terms, but my parents are my father and mother. If my mother had died younger, if I had grown up with Sarah B., then perhaps it would have been different. But I don’t mind it as much as I used to. She is not just my father’s moll; she is my stepmother. It was shocking to me the first time I had to introduce myself to someone as Sarah Billinghurst’s stepson. It was a new identity, one I had neither contemplated nor wished for. But it turned out that, like most identities, it could come in very handy. I meet the great musicians of our time, opera singers and conductors, and they look at me with artistic vagueness, and then I say that I am Sarah B.’s stepson and suddenly everything turns warm. Those words on which I once half-choked are now customary, and that is simply a part of who I am. Family is not a zero-sum game. Having more of it does not reduce the key connections. It is an addition, a supplement to my love. It has been hard to see Sarah B. take apart what were my mother’s houses, but the new things she has spun are extremely wonderful; when I step into the country house she decorated and supervised for my father, I feel tension dropping away from me. It’s a house that I associate with elegance and comfort and happiness. I call it the idyll. We had missed the woman’s touch, and it is thrilling to have it once more to hand. I have always been fascinated by difficult loves, and stepmothers, as the fairy tales all tell, are inherently a challenge; but our affection for each other is refracted through our mutual love for my father, and through that process takes on a certain brilliance that transcends our situation.